SAT Scores and Unprepared Students

Writing at National Review Online about the recent release of SAT scores, Jason Richwine wonders whether all the fretting about low college-readiness rates among high school graduates really makes much sense.  He links to an Atlantic Monthly story on the 2013 scores that bears the title “This Year’s SAT Scores Are Out, and They Are Grim.”  Scores were flat from 2012, and only 43 percent of students taking the test proved to be college-ready according to the scale developed by the College Board, which administers the SAT, the fifth year in a row that less than half of test-takers were likely to reach a B- grade-point-average their first year of college.  In its report, the Board termed this result a “call for action,” especially as it found strong correlations between students who took a core curriculum in high school and earned higher scores.  Only one cause for optimism emerged: the slight rise in readiness by African American and Hispanic students.

Richwine finds the episode just one more entry in a routine, meaningless rite:

It’s time again for the yearly ritual: The College Board releases data on recent SAT scores, which show some large percentage of American students are not ‘college ready.’ The alarm is sounded. Much hand-wringing follows. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Underlying Richwine’s complaint is the notion that too many high school students go to four-year colleges: “The costly four-year-college track simply does not suit the interests and abilities of many young people who are pushed into it.”

Agreed–but that is one reason why the College Board’s college-readiness measures are valuable.  They show the ongoing mismatch between the everyone-should-go-to-college claim and the actual capacity of high school graduates to handle authentic college-level work.  Without that empirical evidence, the first-year pile-up of remediation placements might pass unnoticed, allowing an enormous waste and inefficiency in the system to continue without challenge.

Richwine wonders, too, how the SAT results can be “grim” unless we already have some “understanding of what constitutes success.”  Once more–we agree, but we certainly have an understanding of failure here.  It is a high school graduate who invests time and money going to college only to end up in remedial courses that provide no college credit and are of limited benefit, for most of those students who enter remediation don’t graduate.  Schools, too, have a gauge of failure in the money and resources they invest in the programs, educating students in skills and knowledge they should have learned years before.

For students and institutions, the effort is all-too-often futile.  The College Board aims to use the data to develop programs in high school to boost the prospects of entering college students.  Others should use the data to inject a bit of realism into the college-going population, letting them know that a high school diploma is no guarantee of progress at the next level.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

One thought on “SAT Scores and Unprepared Students”

  1. The reports that many high school grads are not academically prepared for anything approaching college-level work ought to open someone’s eyes to an entrepreneurial opportunity. Some parents — perhaps a rather small percentage, but still a significant number — presumably would like to know whether their Johnny or Susie is actually making intellectual progress in high school or not. Just because the report cards have nothing but As and Bs doesn’t prove anything. Could there be a market for an independent test of basic knowledge and skills that would tell parents where their kids need additional work prior to college? And the same for college itself, since we know that many students just coast through without learning much.

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